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Kafka, Existential Psychotherapy, & the Search for Meaning

Kafka, Existential Psychotherapy, & the Search for Meaning by Eric Rosenblum, LMFT, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

In his stories, novels, and parables, Franz Kafka captures how strange, hard, and bewildering it is to be alive. He writes about the feeling of being too late, that one has missed their chance; about the experience of being other; about the futility of depending on authority figures for help and guidance; and about the hope and challenge of finding one’s own path.

This is all to say that Kafka is a wonderful and important writer, one to whom I go back again and again because of how illuminating, serious, and funny his work is. In Kafka, there’s no space for petty concerns—as an author, he had little interest in gossip or politics. He barely even wrote about sex. Kafka was interested primarily in humans’ relationship to themselves and to the universe. Kafka found humor and pathos in the deepest pains of being alive.

In one of his aphorisms, Kafka wrote, ‘Never again, psychology!’ I’m not sure exactly what he meant by this, but I think he wanted to go beyond the workings of the human brain to tell stories from an even broader—an almost biblical—perspective.

Still, I can’t help but interpret his works in a psychological way. In The Trial, for example, the protagonist is accused of committing a crime, but he can’t find out what the crime is. To me, this captures something about a person’s fundamental uncertainty about who they are and whether or not they’re good or bad, guilty or innocent. I feel like there’s something about intergenerational trauma in there.

And in The Metamorphosis, Joseph K.’s first thought when he realizes he’s transformed overnight into a dung beetle is that he has to call in sick to work. To me, this feels deeply psychological. Kafka captures how we’re so caught up in the mundane that we are numb to the fundamental absurdity of human life.

In my office in Manhattan’s Financial District, I keep a couple hundred of my books on shelves behind my therapist chair. I love being surrounded by my books while I do therapy. I enjoy noticing clients scan my books and I am delighted when they ask about them. I value books and reading; by displaying my books, I guess I’m asserting that value.

The author most represented on my bookshelves is Kafka.

Existentialism is a philosophical exploration of the meaning and purpose of human life. Kafka was not explicitly an existentialist—he died two decades before the term was coined in 1940s France—but he is widely seen as a precursor to existentialist writers and thinkers. Existentialist philosophy inspired the great psychologist Irvin Yalom to create Existential Psychotherapy. I find a lot of wisdom and guidance in Yalom’s work.

When I’m doing my best as a therapist, I’m partnering with my clients to transcend the mundane and confront the absurd, painful, and awe-inspiring phenomenon of human life. Beneath any conversation I’m having with clients is the question: how do we make meaning in our time on earth? Having Kafka’s books on the shelves behind me is a reminder to broaden the scope of my work as a therapist.

About the author

Eric Rosenblum, LMFT

Therapist, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

I work with clients who are seeking to deepen the intimacy in their relationships, feel more connected and confident in themselves, and create meaning in their lives.

  • 🎯 Direct
  • 💙 Warm
  • 😃 Humorous
  • 🎨 Creative

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